Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Inge Lyse Hansen, Richard Hodges, Butrint 4: The Archaeology and Histories of an Ionian Town. Butrint archaeological monographs, 4. Oxford; Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books, 2013. Pp. xii, 330; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9781842174623. $90.00.

Reviewed by Ivan Vranić, Institute of Archaeology, Belgrade (ivanvran@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint, which is located in the southern-most region of the Albanian seaside, across from the island of Corfu, has been a focus of numerous archaeological investigations for almost a century. Established in 1993 as a cooperation between the Institute of World Archaeology, University of East Anglia, Norwich and Albanian Institute of Archaeology, the Butrint Foundation Project has already drawn a significant level of scholarly attention to the site with three previously published volumes. 1 From a glance at the title and the table of contents, this volume provides a more comprehensive approach. Focusing on diachronic changes of the town's Mediterranean cultural landscapes, numerous authors contribute seventeen essays covering a time span from the Bronze Age to the Turkish and Venetian period, and present up-to-date reports about Butrint's changing architecture, landscape and material culture. This richly illustrated volume will be an important starting point for future interpretations of changing settlement patterns and the emergence of urban centres in the eastern Adriatic and Ionian Sea littorals, providing basic architectural and socio-political references for a time span from the later prehistory throughout the entire historical period.

Italian teams were the first to conduct excavations on the site during the 1920s and 1930s. Struggling to connect this 'eternal' place with Virgil's account of its mythic role in the emergence of Rome, the Italian goal was a quest for 'Troy in miniature'. In Greek academic circles, it had long been accepted that Butrint had a continuously important place in Greek national history (starting from the Archaic period), and supporting this argument was a modern-Greek-speaking population living in the region. The Albanian position, which took shape during the reign of the dictator Enver Hoxha, argued a similar case of continuity between ancient Illyrians and modern Albanians. These conflicting approaches, as the volume elaborates, influenced even UNESCO which 'imbibed the poison' of the local nationalisms (p. 1). Being in a position to judge, UNESCO labelled Butrint as a continuously occupied Greco-Roman urban settlement, ultimately favouring certain 'more European' historic narratives over the local histories which are further entangled in its diverse past and present identities (p. 18).

Therefore, beside presenting a wealth of new information about the changes in Butrint's cultural landscape, the most far-reaching result of the Butrint IV is its role as a stepping stone toward the necessary changes of the researchers' perspectives, theoretical standpoints and goals. Following the footsteps pioneered by Fernand Braudel's work, 2 and engaging with problems of constructions of different past or present Mediterranean identities, 3 the current volume sets sight on another goal and methodology: to position this exceptional site in the context of longue durée histories of a 'Mediterranean town'. It provides a different view of the supposed urban continuum, which is now perceived as a 'chimera' of different histories that all have contributed to Butrint's prominent place in Mediterranean history and heritage, rather than a direct line of continuity of one culture, or several ones (P. 17). Richard Hodges elaborates these new goals in the introduction and concluding remarks. He proposes that we should abandon the previously dominating culture-historical methodology and 'excavate the poison away' − focus on deconstruction of the Italian, Albanian, and Greek nationalistic narratives about the 'Trojan', 'Illyrian' or 'Greek' Butrint.

The other contributions present straightforward cases and reports on the excavations and finds. David Bescoby elaborates on landscape reconstruction, sea level alterations and possible correlations of the changes in the local environment with the known historical phases, pointing out that Butrint's context is 'fairly typical' of the Mediterranean.

Sarah Lima gives an account of Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age settlements in the region, making an important attempt to compare information obtained by Greek and Albanian archaeologists within the region of Epirus. She focuses on prehistoric architecture, fortifications, and pottery from four adjacent hilltop settlements, and re-evaluates the previous culture-historical 'strict distinction' between 'Greek' or 'Illyrian' finds. Lima also makes an effort to discover if there are any proper archaeological indications for the 'Trojan hypothesis' of the earlier Italian approach, concluding that all of the ethnic labels are politically motivated and that ancient Epirus should be revaluated on its own terms. However, when confronted with the task of presenting the finds from the settlements, she tends to label some settlements as 'Illyrian' and pottery as belonging to the 'prehistoric Illyrian ceramic sequences'.

An important contribution by Simon Greenslade, Sarah Leppard and Matthew Longe is dedicated to the architectural phases of Butrint's acropolis. This contribution will be of enormous value for further interpretations of settlement patterns in the eastern Adriatic, in particular the elusive Archaic Greek and Hellenistic settlements in the region. Similar to other cases from the region, the authors struggle with the difficulties of dating Butrint's polygonal (perhaps Archaic) and later fourth or third century BC walls made of finely hewn stone blocks.

The next two chapters discuss the Roman bridge and aqueduct from the later first century BC. The authors consider whether coins of Augustus and Nero struck in Butrint with an arcade represent the aqueduct or the bridge. Andrew Wilson first presents research on the town's water supply. He argues that since the most prominent architectural element in Roman Butrint was this aqueduct, which ran for several kilometres across the Vrina Plain from a nearby hill spring, it is likely that the coins represent this structure. Beside the piers, which once supported the arcades and still are visible in the plain south of the town, there are numerous cisterns or tanks, a nymphaeum, fountains, and at least six bath complexes. Next, Sarah Leppard discusses the Roman bridge spanning the Vivari Chanel. This structure also used arcades and she believes it is possible that Augustan coins represented the bridge rather than the aqueduct.

The following chapters present other Roman finds: structures, settlements and cemeteries, sculpture, a recently excavated settlement in the Vrina Plain, and the sixth century Great Basilica. There are also reports on medieval fortifications and churches, and contributions focusing on the modern history, material culture, and architecture of late Venetian Butrint and a nearby castle of Ali Pasha.

In the concluding essay on recent achievements, socio-political context, and future tasks of the Butrint National Park, Richard Hodges describes the political aspects of working with cultural heritage in modern-day Albania (it is an interesting and even surreal chronicle of different political problems facing foreign researchers working in post-communist Albania). Although the World Bank, UNESCO and the Butrint Foundation managed to declare the town a World Heritage site, the first in Albania, the Butrint Foundation continues to negotiate with corrupt local bureaucrats solely interested in tourism and building villas overlooking the 'Illyrian' site. The Butrint National Park remains protected and free from unplanned development and the Albanian politicians have to come to terms with the western model of eco-tourism, based on Butrint's unspoilt natural and cultural resources. This position, which Hodges labels as a 'post-colonial engagement' (p. 319), leaves researchers in the uncomfortable position of westerners who are forcing their own 'civilized' standards upon 'the others'. This situation has probably led to the only noticeable problem of this volume which is the very prominent discrepancy between the theoretically rich introduction and concluding remarks on the one hand and the empirical studies and reports, on the other. The two differing approaches lead to some unavoidable shortcomings. It appears that the reports try to avoid these political issues by focusing entirely on a 'safe ground' of interpreting compartmentalized cases of Butrint's material culture, often neglecting its past or present regional context. The 'theoretical section', though, may have also been improved with a more thorough study of what I. Hodder calls the local voices.4

Table of Contents

1. Excavating away the 'poison': the topographic history of Butrint, ancient Buthrotum (Richard Hodges)
2. Landscape and environmental change: new perspectives (David Bescoby)
3. Butrint and the Pavllas River Valley in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age (Sarah Lima)
4. The acropolis of Butrint reassessed (Simon Greenslade, Sarah Leppard and Matthew Logue)
5. The aqueduct of Butrint (Andrew Wilson)
Appendix: The Roman Bridge of Butrint (Sarah Leppard)
6. Roman sculpture from Butrint: a review of recent finds (Inge Lyse Hansen)
7. The Vrina Plain settlement between the 1st-13th centuries (Simon Greenslade)
8. Two Roman mausolea on the Vrina Plain (Oliver J. Gilkes, Valbona Hysa and Dhimetër Çondi with a contribution by Inge Lyse Hansen)
9. The western cemetery: archaeological survey of Roman tombs along the Vivari Channel (David R. Hernandez and John Mitchell)
10. The Great Basilica: a reassessment (Nevila Molla)
11. The medieval church and cemetery at the Well of Junia Rufina (Alessandro Sebastiani, Dawn Gooney, John Mitchell, Pagona Papadopoulou, Paul Reynolds, EmanueleVaccaro and Joanita Vroom)
12. The Western Defences (Solinda Kamani)
Appendix: The glass from Tower 1 in the Western Defences (Sarah Jennings and Karen Stark)
13. Material boundaries: the city walls at Butrint (Nevila Molla, Francesca Paris and Francesco Venturini)
14. Late Venetian Butrint: 16-18th centuries (Siriol Davies)
15. The Castle of Ali Pasha at Butrint (José C. Carvajal and Ana Palanco)
16. Archaeologists as placemakers: making the Butrint National Park (Richard Hodges)


1.   Hodges, R., Bowden W. and K. Lako 2004. Byzantine Butrint: Excavation and Surveys 1994-1999. Oxford: Oxbow Books. Hansen I. L. and R. Hodges 2007. Roman Butrint, An Assessment. Oxford: Oxbow Books. Bowden W. and R. Hodges 2011.Butrint 3: Excavations at the Triconch Place. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
2.   Braudel F. 1995.The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. I. Berkeley: University of California Press
3.   Gosden C. 2004.Archaeology and Colonialism – Cultural Contacts from 5000 BC to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4.   Hodder I., 2003. Archaeological Reflexivity and the "Local" Voice. Anthropological Quarterly. 76(1): 55–69.

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